Hurricane Fiona: An All Too Familiar Plight
Author’s Note: This article contains a quote from a person directly affiliated with the author. This does not affect the validity of the reporting or the credibility of the source.
Days before the fifth anniversary of Hurricane María, Puerto Rico was hit by another storm: Hurricane Fiona. Despite being a lower-category hurricane than Maria, Fiona razed the island, causing great damage and hardships for Puerto Ricans that ranged from an island-wide blackout to multiple casualties. The island—still not fully recuperated from María’s devastation—now faces another natural disaster, this time with an already debilitated infrastructure, a crumbling economy, and an unreliable electrical system. All of these factors are exacerbated by the institutional neglect and corruption that occurred after Hurricane María hit the island. In a written statement to the Tufts Observer, junior Mariana Janer-Agrelot expressed a sentiment of hopelessness regarding the devastation. She said, “I just feel tired and numbed to all the news; the government is just not politically righteous enough to get us out of another mess.”
While Fiona was smaller in size and power, when the country’s infrastructure has been stripped to its foundation, any climate event can cause severe damage and chaos. Media outlets have generally attributed natural disasters as the cause of a country’s collapse, but, for Puerto Ricans, the real underlying issue is poor infrastructure development. Valerie Infante, senior and president of the Puerto Rican Student Association at Tufts, said, “At the end of the day, it is overarching themes like colonialism, capitalism, US imperialism, and lack of preparedness.” Although the storm didn’t devastate the country with the same power as Hurricane María, the Puerto Rico of today is not the same as the Puerto Rico of six years ago. Fiona has caused a major crisis within the country, resulting in a water and power outage, multiple casualties, and a diesel shortage that threatens the hospitals, supermarkets, and telecommunications on the island.
Locals agree that despite the different magnitude scale between María and Fiona, Fiona still caused significant damage to the already poor infrastructure of the island. Mayra Matos, a local Puerto Rican woman living in Utuado, a town located in the central mountainous zone of the island, said, “Everything is fine. There are no trees on the roads, no electricity cables, or no lighting posts. This was not María. Yet nobody knows why there is no water or power.”
Puerto Rico’s energy crisis predates Hurricane Fiona. The grid system had already been on the verge of collapse, which was further aggravated when the electric company was sold to a private institution: the American-Canadian power company LUMA Energy. The company fired the previous expert workers who were most familiar with the island’s power grid and has since handled energy infrastructure poorly, disregarding the inner workings of Puerto Rico’s electrical grid system. The lack of preparation brought on by the energy crisis has resulted in a nationwide blackout after the hurricane, and, as of October 4, service still has yet to be restored. Janer-Agrelot expressed the frustration people on the island feel against the power company. She said, “I do believe Puerto Ricans will continue to go to the streets to protest against finishing the contract with LUMA.” In fact, many citizens, including town mayors, have taken over the responsibility of restoring power to their communities, showing resilience in difficult circumstances.
Hospitals, supermarkets, and telecommunication towers rely on power generators to keep the island running. Power generators have also become a staple in almost every Puerto Rican household. However, they are unreliable and dangerous; they can explode and emit carbon monoxide. Among the several casualties of Fiona, at least one person is recorded to have died due to carbon monoxide poisoning, demonstrating how the island’s unstable and corrupt electrical system proves not only frustrating for civilians, but fatal.
On the other hand, cargo ships with diesel have been unable to dock in Puerto Rico, exacerbating shortages across the island, and threatening institutions essential to the citizens’ well-being and safety. The two principal institutions in danger here are hospitals and supermarkets since they depend primarily on fuel generators for power. In this manner, Hurricane Fiona has devastated the country to the point where citizens are at risk of losing access to food, telecommunications, and safe healthcare.
Amidst all the chaos and uncertainty, Puerto Ricans are resilient and taking matters into their own hands. From past experiences, they know that their survival depends on each other, not the federal or local government.
Along these lines, Véronica Méndez, a Puerto Rican student at Tufts, in a written statement to the Observer, said, “I believe our survival as an island should be celebrated and rewarded with equality, just treatment, and proper funding to prevent the collateral damage of these events. I suggest that instead of congratulating a Puerto Rican on merely surviving colonization, people should advocate and stand alongside us. Nothing will be solved if we continue to be stuck as a US unincorporated territory any longer.” Méndez alluded to how Puerto Ricans feel their resilience wearing thin; they want to have a quality of life equal to the one preached about in the country presiding over them, not to be congratulated for merely surviving.
Janer-Agregolt said, “I think the whole resilience situation is incredibly exhausting… Puerto Ricans are done being resilient, we just want stability and certainty.” For the sake of their mental health, Puerto Ricans feel a need for stability instead of stress and fear triggered by hurricanes. Infante echoed this sentiment when she said, “It is the PTSD that is occurring… It is a deeply severe form of mental illness that should be treated, and a lot of Puerto Ricans simply do not have access to a psychiatrist.”
Despite not being at the site of the storm, members of the Puerto Rican diaspora are affected by circumstances like these. Infante stated, “It is something that is incredibly traumatizing, and the worst part is that you can’t really escape it. I’ve seen this with Puerto Rican diaspora students who feel very guilty about the whole thing… completely burying themselves in work, for example, or the opposite, only talking about the hurricane and trauma dumping. People have different ways to cope.”
Instead of congratulating Puerto Ricans for their resilience in the face of struggle, some Puerto Ricans believe people should show their support for the island by donating money and supplies to local organizations. As Méndez suggested, “The Puerto Rican diaspora, as well as others, can help by supporting local organizations (not government funded) and spreading the message that Puerto Ricans have always been treated unfairly, thus demanding just and fair treatment from the colonizers.” In order to truly help Puerto Ricans, others need to amplify their voices and call out these injustices. Applauding their strength and perseverance further perpetuates the state of decadence instead of alleviating it.